Haman’s decree has been issued. Although a Midrash suggests that some Persians began killing Jews immediately, Haman held his lottery on the first of Nissan, and Chazal assumed Ester walked into Ahashverosh’s throne room (in the next chapter) on the first days of Pesach. The threat of destruction hanging over the Jewish people is serious, but wouldn’t seem to be immediate.
Mordechai doesn’t react that way. He cries, tears his clothing, and dons sackcloth, as if the disaster has already arrived. When Ester hears his plan, she doesn’t react with the same urgency, reminding her uncle that she has to wait for the king to call her.
Knowing the End of the Story
There is some disagreement as to what she meant (Rashi, for example, seems to think she meant that she had time, and could beg for the Jews’ life once he called her, which would be soon). Midrash Tehillim 22 reads Mordechai as understanding her to feel unthreatened, since she was the queen.
His response, according to the Midrash, was that she shouldn’t think the Jews’ salvation depended on her, the Jews would always be redeemed. The only question was what role she would play. Would she earn the ignominy of failing to do her part, or the glory of taking advantage of where Hashem had positioned her?
This is a general proposition of Jewish belief that seems to me much forgotten, including by many observant Jews. The bedrock of the end of history is set; we might shape some of its parameters, the course we take to get there, and the role we play in it once it arrives, but that’s it. That’s what Mordechai is reminding Ester.
The Left Should Push and the Right Should Pull
The Midrash characterizes Mordechai as successfully balancing the harsh and inviting sides of his message. Chazal in Sotah 47a offer two examples of great teachers who failed to achieve such nuance, Elisha and R. Yehoshu’a b. Perachyah. When Elisha disciplines his student Gechazi (for taking money from Na’aman, the Aramean general whom Elisha cured of his tsara’at—a story we read as the haftarah for Parashat Tazria), the Gemara understands Gechazi to eventually have found his way to Damascus, where he led others to sin.
When Elisha goes to Damascus (II Melachim 8;7), it is partially to urge Gechazi to return with him, physically and spiritually. Gechazi replies that Elisha himself had taught that Heaven will not allow the sufficient repentance of those who sin and cause others to sin.
A similar story happens with R. Yehoshu’a b. Perachyah, who reprimanded a student for being overly attentive to the physical features of their waitress. After getting the impression that he had been permanently rejected by his teacher, the student established his own idolatrous religion. When R. Yehoshu’a came to encourage him to repent, this student also reminded his teacher of the lesson that one who sins and causes others to sin will not be allowed by Heaven to sufficiently repent.
How Hard Should the Left Push?
The Gemara does not object to the original discipline administered by the two teachers. What bothers the Gemara is the outcome, that the left pushed so hard that the students felt too excluded to return. But if it’s true that one who causes others to sin will not be allowed to repent, what choices did anyone have (other than being careful, even when feeling rejected, not to cause others to sin, at least)?
Meiri points out what seems to me the clear answer, that the teachers spoke too unequivocally. While it’s true that Heaven won’t let such a person completely repent—meaning, according to Meiri, the person will have to bear some punishment for his or her actions—that doesn’t mean repentance has no value, which is what the students heard.
The Dilemma, Expressed
That’s where the Gemara leaves us, recognizing the delicate balance in dealing with others (we’ve spoken about Mordechai and Ester, to whom we’ll return, and teachers and students, but the Gemara extends that to how we deal with ourselves, with our personal relationships, and with our children). In multiple situations in life, we need to hold fast to a certain line, to a realization of right and wrong, and must express that.
That’s the left hand, and it will often be experienced as being pushed away, because when any of us fall on the other side of the line (and we all do, at multiple points in our lives). The immediate and important challenge is to ensure there’s also a right hand pulling people close.
With the stories in Sotah, the Gemara seems to be saying the teachers should have been more careful to include the right pulling close as they were teaching the true statement that causing others to sin creates the necessity of punishment. Even as they said that some acts lead to serious consequences, they might have also emphasized that no one is ever so distanced from Hashem as to be unable to come back. We can make it really hard on ourselves, but we can always come back and, with enough sincere effort and the willingness to face up to the consequences of our actions, even fully.
Walking Her Back From the Precipice
Mordechai’s first message had not stimulated in Ester the urgency he saw as necessary to face this time of trouble. He needed her to know this was the time to act, needed to put her outside her comfort zone, as we would say. That’s the left pushing, telling her she was risking her and her family’s future if she didn’t respond.
He balanced that with the vision of what she could accomplish if she reacted well—she could be one of the few people who fully realize the potential Hashem set up for them. Who knows their exact purpose? Mordechai tells Ester she has been granted that great gift, the opportunity to know and to fulfill the exact purpose Hashem had in mind for her. The chance to do that is a great way to pull us close. It works for Ester, and I hope it can work for us, as we stumble through life to—we can hope—a redemption like Purim.